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Beer Drinkers Fail to Meet Antitrust Bar in Anheuser-Busch Merger Suit

Craft beer fans have watched for years as macro beer outfits like Heineken gobbled up all their favorite microbreweries. This time, though, it was one behemoth merging with another, and the ale aficionados came armed with an antitrust lawsuit.

Unfortunately for them, a federal appeals court rejected their legal challenge to Anheuser-Busch InBev's $107 billion purchase of SABMiller in 2016. In the words of the court, the "consumers' allegations do not belly up to this bar."

Ales and Antitrust Law

Antitrust laws are designed to protect consumers by promoting competition and preventing monopolies and price-fixing. In this case, a group of beer consumers argued "the effect of the proposed acquisition may be substantially to lessen competition, or to tend to create a monopoly in the production and sale of beer in the United States." Specifically, Anheuser-Busch InBev's purchase of SABMiller (at that point involved a joint venture with Molson Coors Brewing Company) would lead to "higher prices, fewer services, fewer competitive choices, diminished product quality and product diversity, [and] suppression and destruction of smaller competitors through exclusive distribution arrangements."

But the Ninth Circuit Court in Portland, Oregon wasn't convinced. The court noted that SABMiller's sale of its MillerCoors venture to Molson would alleviate any antitrust concerns. Circuit Judge Margaret McKeown wrote that the law requires plaintiffs to "adequately [allege] facts that an acquisition creates 'an appreciable danger' or 'a reasonable probability' of anticompetitive effects in the relevant market." The court pointed to the Justice Department's investigation of the merger as evidence that the beer drinkers' allegations failed to meet that standard:

Pre-transaction, SAB operated in the United States exclusively through its joint venture MillerCoors. As a condition of closing the acquisition, SAB divested completely its interests in MillerCoors to Molson. By requiring full divestiture of SAB's U.S. interests, the DOJ ensured that the acquisition will not create "any increase in the concentration in the U.S. beer industry."

Craft Beer and Competition (or Lack Thereof)

Anheuser-Busch InBev controls brands from Budweiser and Bud Light, to Beck's, Corona, Hoegaarden, Stella Artois, and craft beers Goose Island and Blue Point. SABMiller was distributing Fosters, Miller, and Pilsner Urquell, and Molson Coors will now take over all Miller and Coors brands under its umbrella.

Joseph Alioto, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, said the fight isn't over yet. "The court overlooked the elephant in the room: that the 72 percent of the market that was occupied by ABI, SAB and Molson is now occupied by two," Alioto told Reuters. "Is the elimination of the second-largest brewer in the world from the U.S. market a lessening of competition? I don't think there is any doubt."

For now, though, the consolidation of the world's biggest beer brands at the top will continue, and true beer nerds will know which names to avoid if they're looking for true craft beers.

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